The first time I flew to Seattle I burst into tears.
The plane was landing just after sunset and as we made our final approach the Olympic mountains came into view. The glaciers were blazing with alpenglow against a deep dark blue sky. The view was stunning, literally. Thought stopped. Tears came. The plane landed, and I was still intoxicated by the moment hours later.
That was a long time ago. And there have been many similar moments of transcendence. As a diver, being immersed quite literally in a sea of life produces awe on a near daily basis. Sharks, you discover, are spiritual creatures.
Awe is more than a lovely moment. Its potent healing powers are formidable. Scientists have found that regular experiences of awe lower inflammation. It activates the parts of the Vagus nerve that serve as an antidote to trauma. Psychologist Jonah Paquette, who has written a book on the subject of awe summarizes thus: “By experiencing more awe in our daily lives, we can become less stressed, healthier, happier, and more connected to those around us.”
My current obsession is trauma. Not so much my own, though that certainly exists. But how, as a coach, to help those struggling with trauma (which is arguably all of us) find more peace and equanimity even as our nervous systems go off like oversensitive smoke detectors on a regular basis. I deeply believe awe can be a big part of what trauma pioneer Peter Levine calls the ‘counter-vortex,’ a sort of anti-matter that counteracts traumatic dysregulation.
And gaining this benefit doesn’t require you to venture much farther than your own backyard, Says Paquette, “Experiences of awe don’t have to be grand, like a total solar eclipse, to offer benefit. Any experience of awe can touch our lives and help us connect with our world with more compassion.”
Therapist, author and trauma expert Deb Dana calls moments of everyday awe glimmers. These are the everyday moments of sensing the presence of something larger than ourselves. Glimmers can take many forms: your dog sleeping under a shaft of sunlight; the whooshing sound of a breeze passing through leaves; the voice of someone you care for; a warm smile; a photo or video of waves lapping the beach (water is a major source of glimmers); a pleasing scent.
Glimmers are the opposite of triggers. And they’re almost always available. The more you look for glimmers, sit with them, let them touch you, the more powerful the benefits.
Have a look around you right now. Is there something you see, hear, smell or can touch that brings an involuntary ping of pleasure? Stay with it. Let it have its way with you. And stay open to the next glimmer and the next one and the one after that.
One important trauma note: like so many things that are medicine for people who have not experienced trauma, glimmers can be harmful for trauma survivors if not treated with caution, care and judgment. If you are prone to getting flooded by strong emotions, glimmers may be best experienced in very small doses. Better still, if you are seeing a coach or therapist, bring them along for the ride.
In small doses or huge helpings, awe should be in every resilience toolkit.
See you at the next sunset.